By Hugh Gilmore
February 25 issue, 2009. Last Thursday I carefully printed all sixteen chapters of the novel I've just finished — working title: Lovesick in Ann Arbor: A "Bookshop Guy" Mystery. After fourteen months of a supposed twelve-month quest. A nice clean copy. Collated. Proofed a few dozen times.
My heart was light, but my gut was flipping as I wondered, What happens next? The theme music of my life didn't suddenly swell up. The paparazzi hadn't assembled on the lawn. Not a single flashbulb blinded me. Last November's leaves still waited un-raked in the carport.
In fact, I was home alone, in my subterranean cell. My joy and pride would have to remain private for a while. And that was okay, because you really only get one chance to celebrate an achievement. And when you do, timing is everything. Besides, how done is "done" with a novel?
As the chapters printed out — this one 28 pages, that one 16, this one 10 ("The ideal length" my wife had said when she edited my MS), and that one 22 — I sent e-mails to four people I'd secretly hoped would agree to be first readers. None of them expected my request. I hadn't had the nerve to ask them until I'd reached this point.
In fact, I'm amazed I sent those e-mails. All my life I've been either too pigheaded, or felt too unworthy (there's a fine line there), to ask for opinions. When it comes to writing, however, after two years, and over 80 columns, with the Local, I've learned that "The Reader Rules." If someone stumbles on a sentence I've written, or chokes on a paragraph, it's because that sentence was clumsy, and that paragraph wasn't digestible.
To my surprise, all four persons I e-mailed said yes — three of them within an hour of my asking. The world is so fast nowadays.
You may wonder whom I trusted to read my book. I can't give names, but I will say that I gave a lot of thought to the process. I'm not part of a writing group, so I had to look outside my regular sphere of acquaintances. I asked two women and two men. One woman is a person I have met only once, in passing. She wrote me regarding a column two years ago and since then we've corresponded about books, reading, and life after the death of the planet. The other woman is in her 20s and works as a hair stylist (not mine). Our book talks are nearly always accomplished over the sound of a hair dryer. One of the men is a young teacher whom I first met as a browser in the used book shop I used to run on Chestnut Hill Avenue. He writes also. The other man is a friend who is a writer.
All four love good books and are fearless about tackling serious fiction. And each of them seems — forgive the word — severe — in the sense that he or she seems to have little tolerance for the third rate. Risky business, indeed, trusting my ego to them, but I believe I'll be better off in the long run.
When my printer yielded the last page, I stacked the chapters. A fine, hefty product, 312 pages and 118,000 words long, and about two inches thick. Finally, an excuse to leave the basement. I dropped the book at Staples and asked for four copies.
At 2 o'clock Friday I went back. I was planning to deliver the book to my readers and had to be somewhere by 3:00. Oh no! They weren't collated. Four copies of Chapter One were stacked on four copies of Chapter Two, and so on. I considered asking them to correct the mistake, but with seven people in line behind me, didn't have time to wait. Instead, I rushed over to the sorting table and spent the next 20 minutes making up the four complete copies.
Then, the books cradled in my arms, I ran out to where I'd parked on Germantown Avenue. A big SUV was coming. I waited beside my car before opening the door. As the driver approached, I began writing the headline, "First-time novelist killed en route to delivering MS."
Hah! I knew something like this would happen. Well, it would be a worthy, ironic headline. The stuff, let's say, of great fiction.
Then, vroom, the car drove past.
Perhaps I'll make the news some other day. Right now, I'm off to be the delivery boy.
Brought to you hot, or your money back.
I drove onto my friend's narrow street. A car was coming up toward me, so I backed out and gave him room. He rolled down his window. I thought, Listen mister, I don't have time for a petty traffic argument right now. Oh, it's you! I rolled down my window and handed him the box.
He said, big smile, "You did it, man! I can't believe it. This is great." That felt good, but, yeah, yeah, yeah, I had to get going.
Over to the east side of Chestnut Hill, parked nose-in, facing traffic, I ran up the steps, opened the storm door and left the second box. Still warm, and smelling nice — that fresh wood pulp aroma, with special inkjet topping. Um-umm!
Five minutes of three. Parked, walked down street. Entered hair salon at a great moment. No other customers just then. Three very pretty, stylish young women. One stepped forward with her arm extended to receive The Book. Great.
Is this what it will be like, I thought, backstage at the Oprah show? At Barnes & Noble in Manhattan when I do my public reading and signing? Will Donald Trump buy a copy? Or better yet, Wally Shawn?
Before I could fantasize further, the salon door opened, other customers came in, and the place was soon busy again. But what a pleasant fuss happened during the 54 seconds I had the crowd to myself. Almost worth the 14 months of monastic life spent creating it.
I know, you can count, that's only three of the four. My fourth reader wanted the weekend to finish the three other books she's reading and said that if I brought my MS on Monday she'd give it her undivided attention. I'm looking forward to meeting her in person after two years of e-mails.
They've all promised to try to finish reading the book within a week to ten days. In the meantime, despite the blithe tone of my story today, I'm as nervous as a guy who's just entered his prize pumpkin at the County Fair. I mean, I think it's a pretty good-looking pumpkin, but it's all in the hands of the judges now, isn't it?